by Dieter Carlton from his book, The Science of Art (Copyright, Dieter Carlton, 2009-15)

The Basics of Photography

Photography is more than just snapping pictures. Aside from the basics of camera mechanics and the principles of photography, there are also the many aspects of creative design that distinguish a snapshot from a genuine work of art. Indeed, photography is really another form of art and, much like the artist who paints a picture on a canvas, a photographer must pay attention to such things as composition, lighting, atmosphere, story and charaterization.

For those just starting out in photography or seasoned professionals, this may be a valuable reference to the many tips and tricks of creative photography.

Traditional vs. Digital Photography

Although photography has been around for about 200 years, digital photography is relatively new in that it is generally an interface to modern computer technology. The first traditional photograph was actually recorded in 1817 by French inventor Neciphore Niepce, but was considered impractical in that it faded very quickly. Later in 1827, the first permanent image was recorded by Charles and Vincent Chevalier using a simple box camera. The first digital or filmless camera was introduced in 1975 by Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson and by 2010, the traditional camera was all but replaced by the extraordinary advancement of digital photography.

Traditional photography refers to the use of a camera and lens to record an image onto a film emulsion containing silver halide crystals. The image is captured through the lens of the camera based upon the amount of light, duration of exposure and sensitivity of the film emulsion that is managed by the photographer. Once the image is captured onto the film emulsion, the latter must be processed in a dark room using various chemical agents to expose the image. Once the image is exposed, it becomes a permanent recording of what the photographer had captured.

Digital photography applies the same principals of traditional photography with one major exception--there is no requirement for the use of a film emulsion. Instead, the image is captured electronically and recorded into an array buffer or buffer memory as individual pixels or dots in an array of columns and rows called a raster. This buffer can then be transmitted via a cable connection called a USB (Universal Serial Bus) to a computer and stored in photo-image formats that can then be easily manipulated using various photo-editing software applications. There are many image formats that are recognized by computers, including JPEG, GIF, BMP, etc. The quality of an image captured using a digital camera is dependent upon the number of pixels per inch or dots per inch that the camera is capable of storing. Each pixel stores a piece of the image: thus, the more pixels per inch of the image that is captured the sharper will be the image. In general, pixels are measured as coordinates just as you would measure the dimensions of a plat of land. The unit of measure used to record digital images is called a megapixel. A megapixel is equal to 1,000,000 pixels. A camera rated for 10 megapixels is capable, for example, of recording images at up to 10,000,000 pixels or dots. Megapixels do not necessarily refer to the dimensions of an image; however, the greater the number of megapixels that are recordable using a digital camera the sharper will be the image at a given size (assuming that it was captured in focus). As you increase the size of an image, no matter how many megapixels, its quality will diminish. (Go to top)

The Trilogy of Photography

In order to understand the fundamentals of photography, among its most important aspects is a set of three elements of arbitration by which the resulting image is exposed. These elements are manipulated by the photographer in order to achieve various desired effects upon the captured image.

1. Film Speed


One of the three major manageable elements of photography is a property referred to as film speed. In addition to its relatives, aperture setting and shutter speed, film speed regulates the amount of light which can be reflected or absorbed by the film plane. With traditional cameras, the film plane is the emulsion surface of the film. The thicker this emulsion, the slower will be the film and thus the more light would be required to record the image. The faster the film, the more sensitive it will be to light. Film speed is actually a measure of light sensitivity which has been standardized using one of three common tables of measure: 1. ISO; 2. DIN; and, 3. ASA. The most commonly used film speed measure is the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) which generally combines features of the ASA (American Standards Association) and the German or European DIN (Deutsches Institut fur Normung). Using any of these standards, the higher the number, the more sensitive or faster will be the film.

Although film speed for traditional cameras refers to the thickness of the film emulsion, digital cameras apply the principle of film speed electronically by altering the sensitivity of light admitted through the camera lens. The ISO settings of digital, filmless cameras are precisely the same as those of traditional cameras; hence, the principles of light manipulation and exposure are relatively the same. When we talk about film in terms of either traditional or digital cameras, we refer to it as the film plane.

The speed of film is especially important for photographers interested in capturing movement; however, the faster the film speed the more grainy the resulting image, a quality trade-off based on the number of pixels or dots recorded per square inch of film plane. In order to record images in motion or images in a low-light situation, faster film speeds are required.(Go to top)

2. Shutter Speed


The amount of time that light is allowed to enter through the camera lens and onto the film plane is controlled by what is referred to as shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed the more light will be allowed to enter the camera and the brighter or more light-saturated wil be the resulting exposure. Shutter speed is an important consideration for photographers wishing to capture images in poorly lit areas when artificial light or flash photography would be either impractical or undesirable. In general, the faster the shutter speed, the more light will be required to capture the desired image. On the other hand, the slower the shutter speed the more sensitive will be the camera to vibration and movement. Photographers using slow shutter speeds will generally attach their cameras to a tripod or other stabilizing equipment. (Go to top)

3. Aperture Setting


The size of the opening through which ligh passes into the camera lens and onto the film plane is referred to as the aperture setting. The aperture setting is measured by what is referred to as an f-stop (focal-stop) which controls the actual amount of light that is allowed to enter onto the film plane. The f-stop setting refers to the diameter of the aperture opening. The aperture is a ring that is located on the back side of a camera lens. The higher the f-stop setting, which is easily set by the photographer, the less light will be allowed to enter. The most significant aspect of aperture setting for creative photography is how its manipulation can have an effect upon the amount of information in the resulting image that is in acceptable focus. This is referred to as depth of field. The higher the f-stop setting the greater will be the depth of field or, put more colloqiually, the greater the distance will be the area of the resulting image that is in acceptable focus. Landscape photographers will generally use the highest f-stop setting whereas portrait photographers may want to use the lowest f-stop setting in order to bring the background out of focus and thus draw more attention to the subject. (Go to top)

Professional photographers will carefully manipulate the three elements, film speed, shutter speed and aperture setting to best capture the images they see. Indeed, it is very important to understand that one element is always a trade-off to the other two. For example, the slower the film speed, the wider must be the aperture setting and/or the slower must be the shutter speed. On the other hand, the faster the film speed, the wider the aperture setting and the the faster the shutter speed. It's all about light! The best photographers are those who know how to manipulate the duration and amount of light entering into the camera and onto the film plane.(Go to top)

Lenses and Filters

Without a lens, the camera would be like an eyeball without a retina. The camera lens is used to control the distance and span of area in focus of the image being captured. Lenses are very little more than cylinders containing a series of glass or clear plastic disks which can be converged or diverged by means of a ring used to bring the area of view into focus. There are at least four types of lenses all of which are rated by their focal length and maximum aperture opening. The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters (mm) and the aperture opening by the f-stop setting. The most common lens type is the standard or normal lens, usually having a focal length of 50 to 60 mm. Normal lenses are generally used for portrait or basic snapshot photography and can view images at an angle of about 50 degrees. Wide angle lenses are those whose focal lengths are on a range from 28 to 45 millimeters offering angle of views of 60 degrees or wider. Telephoto lenses are those which can capture images at great distances. These lenses have focal lengths greater than 60 millimeters but whose angle of view depends upon its focal length. The greater the focal length, the further the distance that can be viewed but the narrower the angle of view. Macro lenses are those used to capture images at extreme close-up. The measurement system used to rate macro lenses should not be confused with that used to rate the other three lens types. Because macro lenses make use of thicker glass or clear plastic disks, their focal length is measured as one would measure the lenses of a microscope. In general, macro lenses are rated between 50 mm and 200 mm. The standard 50 mm macro lens can be focused to view small objects at close range while the 200 mm or greater macro lenses are used to photograph insects, plants and small animals from a greater, safe or non-disturbing distance.

Camera filters are sort of like the sunglasses we wear on a bright sunny day. Filters are used to eliminate or minimize haze, ultraviolet light rays, and light dispersion or refraction. Although there are dozens of specialized filters used in photography, the most common among them are the ultraviolet and polarizing filters. These two filters, in particular, are used to eliminate light refraction or bounce. Indeed, light from the sun tends to refract through haze and clouds then bounce in many directions from various objects on the ground. This effect can diminish the clarity and crispness of a photograph; hence, the UV and polarizing filters are used to sort of straighen the light as it passes into the camera lens thus offering a much crisper image. (Go to top)

Flash Photography

Although camera lamps or flash devices are used primarily for indoor or low-light photography, flash devices can also be used to inhance the creativity and quality of the image being photographed. As a general rule, flash photography significantly reduces the need to use high-speed film or very slow shutter speeds; however, there are some disadvantages to using a flash device. The most notable of these is that, when direct flash is used, light saturation can render the subject flat and shadowless. Shadows tend to add more character and interest to a subject; hence, many professional photographs will avoid using direct flash and, instead bounce the flash, for indoor photogaphy, off ceilings or adjacent walls. Flash filters can also be used to suppress or subdue direct flash lighting. Flash photographs also tend to produce the so called "red eye" effect on the eyes of the subject. Red eye results because the speed of the flash is faster than the pupil's ability to close; hence, the light reflects off the fundus or back of the eye where blood circulating in the choroid produces the bright red color characteristic of the red-eye effect.

Wtih outdoor photography, flash is used at night for the average snapshot; albeit, the same issues apply as mentioned above. During daylight hours, especially in low-light, evening or when there is an overcast, flash is used often by professional photographrs to enhance the image when the primary source of light is behind the subject. This is known as "fill-in flash". (Go to top)

Types of Cameras

There are many camera styles each having a myriad of features, but there are really only two specific types of camers--the SLR (Single-lens Reflex) and TLR (Twin-lens Reflex). These two distinctions are based upon the way in which the eye is able to view an image through the lens of a camera, the so called "view-finder". With the TLR type cameras, the view-finder is actually offset from the image that is seen by the lens and is thus a parallax (parralel offset). The parallax view-finder requires that the photographer estimate the subjects position because it is independent or offset from the camera lens by several inches. By contrast to the TLR, the SLR offers the photographer a view of the subject directly through the lens by means of small reflective mirrors placed at 45 degree angles from the view-finder to the back of the lens. Most modern cameras are of the SLR type and are distinguished between the standard SLR and the digital SLR or DSLR cameras. (Go to top)


Composition is the thing that usually gets art and photography students in trouble with their professors.   You know how it is with professors.  They want you to be organized, to follow scientific method or protocol and so on.  Well, that's what composition is really all about.  In fact, composition is nothing more that the arrangement of objects, color and shadow in your work.  This arrangement must be made in such a way as to prevent the viewer from wandering.  If you are clever enough, you can create an arrangement of elements in your work so that no matter how many times someone views it, he/she is immediately drawn to the same point, preferably the center of your composition, because that's where the viewer gets the optimum look at your work.

Composition does not refer necessarily to the placement of the subject(s) in your work.  In other words, putting your subject in the middle of your work does not always obey the rules of composition, especially if there are other objects in the work that conflict.  As a general rule, composition refers to the way in which all of the elements in your work act in harmony to balance the composition.  Thus, if you have a large tree on one side of your work and nothing on the other, there is no balance and your composition will lean toward the large tree.  In my own works, I very often place subjects, like wildlife, off center, yet the viewer's eye is still drawn to the center of my composition because of my placement of other objects and my use of color, shadow and geometry to sort of move the eye toward the composition's center. In order to better understand the physics of composition one needs to know how the viewers' eyes are drawn to the various elements in a work of art. In general, this is called dynamic visual diversion and derives from the following principles: the eye is drawn ... (1) first to shadow or darker areas, then to light or lighter areas; (2) first to low-frequency colors such as red and yellow, then to the high-frequency colors blue and green; (3) first to sharp angles and then to curves; (4) first to detail or focused images then to obscure or blurred images.

Composition also refers to how the subject is framed. In many instances, unseasoned artists and photographers will tend to focus in upon a subject leaving nothing else for the viewer by which to establish a reference to location, time and space. This is basically a subject without a background or without any other objects, even if blurred, dark or color-obscurred, by which the viewer can establish a frame of reference. We call this the "keyhole effect". By this principle, we are forced to peepr through distractions as if imprisoned by their presence in order to see what may be interesting to us. The "Keyhole Effect" can be either a distraction or an enhancement, depending upon how its principle is applied. If we perceive ourselves as groping through foreground clutter to get a better view of the subject then the "Keyhole Effect" becomres a distraction. On the other hand, if vieweing the subject from behind what frames it makes us feel secure then the "Keyhole Effect" can actually be an enhancement.

Composition comes with several important rules. One of these rules refers to the geometry of asymmetry Asymmetry refers to the random placement of color and geometry (or shapes). If a work of art is composed in which the colors and shapes are symmetrical, this is not art, but design; hence, all true art, including abstract art, must be asymmetrical. Another rule refers to the way in which objects or characters bleed or truncate out of the composition (this is also known as a break-away composition). In this case, if the subject bleeds from one side of the composition, it must also bleed from the opposite or near opposite side or otherwise occupy more than a third of the composition. A bleed should be done so that the composition is cut in two halves, not one quarter and three quarters or one third and two thirds.(Go to top)

Story and Characterization

The real purpose of photography is to communicate some sort of message. In fact, without a message, the image is not true art but merely illustration. This is an important notion for those who believe that photography is merely a way of stimulating visual perception much like music stimulates auditory senses. Like the pages of a good book, a photograph must convey a message either through visual drama, by characterization or both. Conveyance of visual drama is referred to in photography as story. Characterization is a form of communications in which the message is obvious from the expressions and/or actions of the subject(s) in a composition.

Story in photography is best described by use of an analogy. Suppose that we undertake to shoot a picture of a crucifix. By itself, this object is just that, a portrait of a crucifix, albeit one of inherent symbolism and meaning among Christians. The inherent symbolism of this object is neither a story nor characterization in any form. Instead, it is only a reference to story and, by this distinction, conveys a message in only a relative, but not direct, sense. Now let's photograph our crucifix, but this time, conveying it among the rubble of a burned out (or bombed out) ruin with perhaps a little fire and smoke in the background. Now we have story because the crucifix has been given context and its relative meaning now purports an interesting paradox.

Characterization in photography can be likened to how we perceive certain behavior simply by observing the body language of humans and animals. A great example of characterization, although not a photograph, is Leonardo Da Vinci's masterful painting "The Mona Lisa". In this work, we can conjure numerous behavior characteristics from the highly subtle, yet seemingly animated smile of the subject. Some critics believe that it is a sexual smirk while others believe it be a sinister grimace. Still others contend that it is a sign of contentment and resolve. Regardless of what she may have been thinking at the time, suffices to say that the message of characterization was enormously successful. Characteriation in art can be grouped into three major classifications: (1) Explicit Characterization, (2) Implicit Characterization and (3) Directed Characterization.

Explicit characterization refers to any expression and/or action that can be readily observed. The painting of "The Mona Lisa" is an example of this. We can actually see her expressions and draw many conclusions hence. Implicit Characterization refers only to the expressions of subjects whose faces we cannot actually see; however, we are readily able to discern them from the evidence available in a well-constructed composition. Directed Characterization refers to expressions that are clearly directed at something we cannot see or someone whose expressions we cannot see like a person looking at something or someone not within view of the beholder's eye. (Go to top)

Light and Shadow

Among the most important structural elements of photography are lighting and shadow. The proper placement of light is essential in creating crisp and interesting photographs. Shadows formed by the proper use of light will add character, contrast and depth to the resulting image. Lighting is important, but only to the extent that it gives the viewer a sense of time and distance. Natural light, such as sunlight and/or moonlight, projects parallel rays which cast shadows having the same width and intensity despite their length. By contrast, artificial light will cast shadows that are generally conical. The intensity of shadows cast by artificial light will diminish the further their distance from the light source. The challenge among photographs with natural light is knowing how to control its intensity and rate of dispersion, reflection, saturation and refraction, all referred to collectively as the rate of light diffusion. Diffusion refers specifically to the way in which light behaves as it enters through the earth's atmosphere. This behavior is dependent upon the time of day and all of the many things that influence the light rays such as clouds, trees, terrain and other objects on the ground. You see, light bounces every which way but loose and when it does, this can effect the color and intensity of shadows. To be continued ... (Go to top)